Dining » Drink Features

Up, Up, and Lillet



"Three measures of Gordon's. One measure of vodka. Half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it over ice and then add a thin slice of lemon peel."—James Bond, Casino Royale.

Had Agent 007 invented the Vesper Martini at home in his underwear with the TV on and not in the middle of a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro, he might have realized there were two things wrong with his order. First, one should never shake a cocktail unless it contains egg, citrus juice or ingredients of wildly different densities as shaking clouds the final product. Second, at the time of Mr. Bond's request, Kina Lillet had been out of production for 19 years.

The Bordeaux region of France is famous for its wine production but was also a major importer of foods from around the world. Introduced there in 1872, Kina Lillet (pronounced lee-LAY) was an aromatized, fortified aperitif that combined the best of both trades, blending white Bordeaux wines with liqueurs and macerations made from exotic citrus and spices. 

In 1987, Kina Lillet became Lillet Blanc when its recipe was reformulated to scale back its supreme quinine bitterness in favor of something more akin to tonic water. This move was made to appeal to modern palates, and in large part, it worked. Your mileage may vary, of course.

"We get people all the time who will order a Vesper Martini without knowing what's in it," says Lorilei Bailey, a bartender at the Katz Club. "They want to be cool like James Bond. And quite often, they won't like it." To be sure, even the scaled down Lillet has an aggressive flavor profile, and the Vesper Martini is a decidedly boozy drink to begin with. 

"When people know what they're getting into, they tend to just order Lillet by itself," she continues. "It's great as a white wine spritzer with a little bit of soda water and a lemon twist. Or served alone on the rocks."

If it sounds like we're dancing around the word "vermouth" here, that's very much on purpose: Lillet Blanc lacks wormwood extract and contains liqueurs so is therefore disqualified from that categorization. But you will find it right alongside vermouths like Dolin, Carpano Antica and Noilly Prat at your local liquor store or purveyor of fine wines.

You might also notice a bottle of Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitivo likewise made from wine fortified with quinine, citrus, spice liqueurs and macerations. Despite its apparent similarities to Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano has bartenders like Bailey excited.

"I haven't tasted Kina Lillet, obviously, but word on the street is that Cocchi Americano is the closest thing we have to that original recipe," she says. "It's got more spice than Lillet Blanc and a long, bitter finish."

Bitter aperitifs are certainly a welcome respite from the one-dimensional sweet and sour flavor profiles of yore, and with Campari, Cynar and Aperol coming on strong in the States, there's never been a better time to sidle up to a bar and get acquainted with them. But please don't tell your bartender whether to stir or shake unless you're wearing a tux.

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